By Shelley Xu
“Television trumps newsprint, Twitter has trumped the press release [and] the blog post outpaces the first broadcast news,” said John Githongo, CEO of Inuka Kenya Trust and former Permanent Secretary for Government and Ethics to the President of Kenya, to international innovators and Stanford students in Cubberley Auditorium Saturday.
Githongo delivered the keynote address for the Stanford Association for International Development (SAID) conference on “Rethinking Reform: Innovations in Improving Governance.”
Karl Eikenberry, former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, was scheduled to give the closing remarks of the conference but pulled out for unspecified reasons. Kavita Ramdas, executive director of the program on social entrepreneurship at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), replaced him.
The SAID Conference, organized in conjunction with FSI, is the association’s capstone event. According to conference director Colin Casey ’12, the conference seeks to address “some of the most pressing and intractable dialogues today.”
“[The] conference is predicated on the idea that there is still a long way to go in improving governance,” he said. “We hope to engage the most salient debates in the field.”
“We bring speakers from across the gamut, but they all share the same conviction that government needs to be improved,” said Casey’s fellow conference director Jonah Rexer ’12.
Githongo discussed the implications of a new digital world on governance in his keynote address.
“Leaders need to learn different language and social media,” he said.
But Githongo also noted that the digital age may harm governance as much as it helps, through digital media’s potential to strengthen human trafficking and money laundering networks.
He said that the ultimate challenge to developing countries today is reconciling the “hardware of democracy,” such as education and poverty, with the “software of democracy,” such as freedom of speech and accountability. Githongo said that if this balance cannot be achieved, the system crashes.
“Equality has replaced simple measures of poverty as the greatest challenge facing the world today,” he said.
“Countries are forced to innovate from poverty,” Githongo added. “Digital technology has allowed countries in the third world to go from the third world to the first world.”
He cited Nigeria as an example of a country where the people accomplish a great deal through the use of mobile phones.
In her closing remarks, Ramdas reemphasized the issues Githongo raised and accentuated the importance of “being in a conversation that is inclusive” when discussing issues such as transparency and accountability in government.
Ramdas said that improving governance is as much a top-down as a bottom-up approach because both government and citizens must apply effort equally.
The conference also featured four different panels: Transparency and Accountability in Fighting Corruption, Technological Innovation and Governance, Governance at the Grassroots and Leadership and State Capacity.
“The panels went really well,” said Larry Diamond, director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and moderator for the panel on Transparency and Accountability. “We were not only exposed to the intensity and scope of the problem, but positive things that are happening and very practical initiatives that governments are adopting to improve the quality of government.”
Ramdas, who also moderated the panel on Technological Innovation and Governance, noted the honesty with which speakers addressed the issue, from admitting the relative failure of some World Bank initiatives to openly discussing controversial government reforms.
Robert Klitgaard, professor at the Claremont Graduate University, discussed two specific innovations in reform during the Transparency and Accountability in Fighting Corruption panel: a Peruvian non-governmental organization called Ciudadanos al Día that researches good governance and awards local governments for successfully implementing transparent practices and an Indian website called ipaidabribe.com, where citizens can report and complain about corrupt government.
Past SAID conference topics have included innovations in development and post-conflict global health issues.
Next year’s SAID conference theme has yet to be decided.
“I couldn’t have asked for it to go more smoothly,” Rexer said of the event. “We came up with some productive insights and actionable changes.”